Season 3, Episode 4 Recode (with Kara Swisher)

Summary Notes


In this episode of "Acquired," hosts Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal, along with producer Jason, engage in a dynamic conversation with Kara Swisher, the executive editor and co-founder of Recode. Swisher, renowned for her incisive technology industry interviews, shares insights on Recode's acquisition by Vox Media, her predictions on media consolidation, and her approach to journalism. She reflects on her impactful career, including her historic interview with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and emphasizes the importance of doing the work to succeed despite challenges like sexism and racism. Swisher also hints at her interest in podcasts and live events as evolving formats for content delivery, revealing her multifaceted media engagements, from her column at The New York Times to her podcast "Recode Decode" and her contributions to Vox.

Summary Notes

Introduction to the Podcast Episode

  • The episode features hosts Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal discussing the acquisition of Recode by Vox Media.
  • They are joined by Kara Swisher, executive editor and co-founder of Recode.
  • The episode is broadcasted live from the Recode podcasting studio.

"Four of acquired the show about technology acquisitions and ipos. I'm Ben Gilbert. I'm David Rosenthal, and we are your hosts."

The quote introduces the hosts and the topic of the podcast, which revolves around technology acquisitions and IPOs.

Kara Swisher's Background and Impact

  • Kara Swisher is recognized for her significant contributions to technology journalism.
  • She co-founded Recode and hosted the Recode Decode podcast.
  • Swisher's work includes founding the All Things Digital conference and blog at the Wall Street Journal.
  • She is praised for her interviewing skills, having interviewed notable figures like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, President Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg.

"Kara is the executive editor and co-founder of Recode. She is the illustrious host of the Recode Decode podcast."

This quote summarizes Kara Swisher's professional titles and her role in the technology journalism industry.

Vox Media Studio and Swisher's Perspective on Workspaces

  • Swisher emphasizes the modesty of Vox Media's studio and workspace.
  • She shares the history of Recode's office locations and the practical reasons behind the moves.

"This is not really the recodes. It's just a studio. Just so you know, we're not fancy here at Vox Media. That's why I'm here."

Kara Swisher clarifies that the studio is simply a functional space, highlighting the non-extravagant nature of Vox Media's work environment.

The Role of Acquisitions in Company Dynamics

  • Swisher discusses the changes that occur after a company is acquired.
  • She compares the current studio to the early days of starting Recode in her backyard.

"And this is what happens after you get acquired."

The quote reflects on the transformation companies undergo post-acquisition, often leading to changes in infrastructure and resources.

Community Engagement and Listener Interaction

  • Ben Gilbert invites listeners to join the Acquired FM Slack community.
  • The community is a space for discussion, real-time reactions, and engagement with tech news.

"Listeners, of course, should go listen to you on the Ezra Klein show."

This quote encourages listeners to engage with additional content related to the podcast’s guest, further involving the audience in the broader conversation.

Pilot's Sponsorship and Business Philosophy

  • Pilot sponsors the episode, offering accounting services for startups and growth companies.
  • The hosts discuss the importance of focusing on core business functions and outsourcing non-essential tasks like accounting.

"Our next sponsor for this episode is one of our favorite companies and longtime acquired partner Pilot for startups and growth companies of all kinds."

The quote introduces Pilot as a sponsor and outlines the services they provide to startups and growth companies.

Swisher's Career Path and Transition to Tech Journalism

  • Swisher's journey from print journalism to tech blogging is highlighted.
  • She partnered with Walt Mossberg and advocated for the evolution of tech coverage at the Wall Street Journal.

"None of that sounds like tech blogging. No, because you basically invent tech blogging after that."

The quote acknowledges Swisher's pioneering role in establishing tech blogging as a legitimate form of journalism.

Pioneering the All Things Digital Conference and Blog

  • Swisher and Mossberg created All Things Digital to combine technology coverage with a profitable conference model.
  • They faced resistance from Wall Street Journal management but succeeded in demonstrating the value of their approach.

"We started with the conference in the early two thousand s, and then we moved to the website, I think, in 2007."

This quote outlines the timeline of the All Things Digital initiative, starting with the conference and later expanding to an online presence.

The Importance of Profitability and Independence in Journalism

  • Swisher emphasizes the power of profitability in gaining editorial freedom and respect within a larger organization.
  • She discusses her preference for not being a traditional employee and the benefits of independent journalism.

"If you make money, they shut up. Just bring. Just, here's the bag of money, leave us alone."

Swisher's quote highlights how profitability can lead to autonomy and a hands-off approach from management in a journalistic enterprise.

The Influence of All Things Digital and Recode on Tech Journalism

  • Swisher and Mossberg's work influenced the rise of independent tech journalism.
  • They cultivated talent and set a precedent for journalists to create their own platforms.

"We were good at training people."

This quote reflects Swisher's acknowledgment of the role All Things Digital and Recode played in nurturing new journalistic talent within the tech industry.

Strings Attached to Benefits

  • Benefits often come with underlying obligations or conditions.
  • Kara Swisher expresses a sense of caution regarding the strings that may be attached to seemingly advantageous situations.

"Well, it comes with strings attached, right?" "It always."

The exchange highlights the common understanding that benefits are rarely without conditions or expectations.

Journalism Strategy

  • Kara Swisher discusses her approach to journalism, which involves being well-informed before engaging in conversations with sources.
  • She notes that her strategy has changed over time, with more reliance on remembering and acting upon tips.

"And then they have to tell you yes or they think you like. There's a whole often. Okay, I always know everything that's going on, but sometimes I don't."

Kara Swisher emphasizes the importance of being perceived as knowledgeable in order to elicit information from sources effectively.

Media Innovation and Evolution

  • Swisher reflects on how media strategies pioneered by her team were adopted and iterated upon by others in the industry.
  • She acknowledges that others have caught up with their "tricks" and are now innovating further, such as Jessica Lessin with long-form stories.

"The stuff we pioneered, everybody else copied and we copied from other people, et cetera, et cetera. But everyone iterated on a little bit of our model..."

This quote illustrates the cyclical nature of innovation in media, where ideas are shared, adapted, and improved upon by various players.

Current Media Pioneers

  • Swisher identifies journalists who are creating valuable content, such as Mike Allen and Casey Newton, and appreciates their insightful and useful contributions.
  • She expresses interest in journalists who develop products that are genuinely helpful or engaging for their audience.

"What I'm interested in is journalists who make products that people find useful and helpful to their lives, or funny or insightful."

The quote underscores Swisher's admiration for journalists who prioritize the utility and relevance of their content for their audience.

Career Decisions and Flexibility

  • Swisher talks about her decision-making process and her desire to work in an environment where she can act decisively.
  • She discusses her work with the New York Times and her approach to journalism as being adaptable and not constrained by her role at Vox.

"I'm going to do this. Too bad. Same thing with the New York Times. I'm going to do it. Did I think about that? I work for a box. Sure. But I don't."

This quote reveals Swisher's assertive and independent approach to her career, choosing to pursue opportunities as she sees fit.

Engaging with Controversial Figures

  • Swisher shares her experience interviewing Anthony Scaramucci and Steve Bannon, emphasizing her willingness to engage with controversial figures.
  • She highlights the importance of being open to conversations with a wide range of individuals, regardless of public opinion.

"So everyone's like, oh, you can't interview him. I'm like, why not? Sure I can."

The quote demonstrates Swisher's belief in the value of interviewing diverse voices, even if they are contentious or divisive.

Media Business Challenges

  • Swisher describes the challenges faced by AllThingsD, particularly with Dow Jones' reluctance to invest in their expansion ideas.
  • She details the tensions with Dow Jones and the decision to seek out media investors who understood the limitations and potential of their business model.

"We're too small to invest in. But if we want to get big, they won't give us the money to get big."

Swisher's quote conveys the frustration of being caught between being too small for significant investment and too big to operate without it.

Launch of Re/code

  • Swisher and Walt Mossberg raised $12 million to launch Re/code after leaving Dow Jones.
  • The name Re/code was chosen from a branding firm's suggestions, and the company faced challenges in acquiring the desired domain name.

"And so we wanted to be careful about it. We wanted immediate investors, we wanted media investors who understood media because we weren't going to make a ton of money."

This quote explains the strategic decision to partner with investors who had a deep understanding of the media industry and realistic expectations about profitability.

Media Landscape and VC Funding

  • Swisher observed the influx of venture capital into new media companies and was concerned about the sustainability of such investments.
  • She decided to sell Re/code to Vox Media to ensure the company's stability in the face of a potentially volatile media funding environment.

"Oh, Jesus. Oh, no. Because I've seen it before, and it always ends in tears, you know what I mean?"

Swisher's reaction to the VC funding trend reflects her skepticism and wariness based on her experience in the industry.

Re/code's Acquisition by Vox Media

  • Swisher and Mossberg negotiated with Vox Media to sell Re/code, seeing it as a strategic move that aligned with their goals and added value to Vox's portfolio.
  • The acquisition allowed Re/code to benefit from Vox's resources while contributing its own strengths to the media group.

"But it really was six months when you started." "Yes, absolutely. It was pretty soon."

The quote captures the relatively quick decision to sell Re/code after its launch, driven by the need to secure the company's future amidst a changing media funding landscape.

Social Media Influence and Metrics

  • Kara Swisher discusses her Twitter following and its fluctuations.
  • She acknowledges that a significant portion of her followers may be bots.
  • Kara was an early Twitter user and was placed on the recommended list, which contributed to her large following.

"No, Twitter is 1.3. It actually dipped when they did their cleaning, their culling, and now it's back up. The purge. When they did the purge, right. And now it's up again to 1.3 or so, something like I'd have to look."

This quote explains that Kara's Twitter following went down during Twitter's purge of fake accounts but then rebounded to approximately 1.3 million followers.

"Yeah, I guess I'm sure. Half of them are bots. I'm guessing half of them are bots. I was just there early, that's all."

Kara speculates that around half of her Twitter followers might be bots, attributing her large following to being an early adopter of the platform.

Audience and Content Strategy

  • Kara Swisher discusses the size of Recode's audience and its growth after being acquired by Vox Media.
  • Recode's focus isn't solely on the website, podcast, or events but on a combination of all these platforms.
  • Kara highlights the importance of content regardless of the medium and the integration of different formats to deliver news and information.

"Small. Small. Couple million."

Kara describes Recode's audience size as small, with a couple of million followers or readers.

"Not as focused on the. Not again. We haven't been as focused. We have been focused on the website, but we don't see it as just the website or the podcast or the event. It's all a group of things."

This quote emphasizes the holistic approach Recode takes towards its content, not focusing on one single platform but rather on the synergy of website, podcast, and events.

The Evolution of Journalism and Content

  • Kara Swisher expresses her interest in newsletters and the changing landscape of traditional web news sites.
  • She discusses the need to think about the value of each product and the potential for innovation in how content is delivered.

"I think we definitely are rethinking what is the traditional web news site, because it's changed really drastically."

Kara indicates that the concept of a traditional web news site is being reconsidered due to significant changes in the industry.

"I'm super interested in newsletters recently. I don't know why, because I think Casey's is so good. I'm thinking a lot about it. That's an interesting."

Kara shares her current interest in newsletters, inspired by the quality of newsletters like Casey's, and is contemplating this format.

Podcasting Strategy and Impact

  • Kara Swisher reflects on the success of her podcast and the importance of substantive content.
  • She discusses how podcasts have allowed for the coverage of a wider range of voices and topics.
  • The podcast format is celebrated for its ability to host in-depth conversations and its flexibility in content creation.

"No. Yes. Because I knew we were. Because our bet is that people are smart. Smart people like smart interviews. People like substantive things."

Kara explains her belief in the intelligence of the audience and their appreciation for in-depth, smart interviews, which guided her confidence in the podcast's potential success.

"Exactly. And so people feel more comfortable in that setting. But I could get to people like chamath. We wouldn't have put chamath on the code stage, but, boy, is he great in a podcast."

This quote illustrates how the podcast format allows for different types of guests and discussions that may not fit traditional event stages, like the Code conference.

The Business of Podcasting

  • Kara Swisher talks about the financial success of podcasts and the importance of creating content that is useful, entertaining, and unique.
  • She emphasizes the direct relationship with the audience that podcasts foster, compared to other media formats.

"Oh, you can do more if they're good. We did 90 minutes with Mark. Everybody listened to that 100%. Why not? It was good. The only thing is it just has to be good."

Kara argues that the length of a podcast isn't as important as the quality of the content, using her 90-minute podcast with Mark Zuckerberg as an example of a successful long-form podcast.

"It's our money and we make it fair and square pretty how we. It's a fair and square pretty much business, as far as I can tell."

This quote highlights the financial benefits of podcasting, where the creators have control over the revenue generated from their content.

The Future of Recode and Digital Media

  • Kara Swisher discusses her current disinterest in writing for the Recode website and her focus on other media formats.
  • She believes in the importance of integrating different platforms to maintain a cohesive brand and reach audiences effectively.

"I'm not writing for the website right now. I don't think. It's not important."

Kara expresses her current lack of interest in writing for the Recode website, suggesting a shift in her focus to other forms of media.

"But it's part of the same branding idea. You have to think of that. And so the reason I'm interested in podcasts is Peter Kafka has one and we're starting another one coming is because we're interested in creatively."

Kara explains that while she is not focusing on the website, she is interested in podcasts and other creative endeavors that align with the overall branding strategy of Recode.

The Role of Gatekeepers in Media

  • The conversation touches on the democratizing effect of podcasts, which have removed traditional gatekeepers and allowed more voices to be heard.
  • Kara Swisher and other participants discuss the personal and educational benefits of podcasting.

"It's fun. Not only is, like, tremendously fun, I never thought it enables people who aren't in media and aren't. I mean, we're not journalists."

This quote from one of the participants reflects on the enjoyment and opportunities that podcasting provides for those outside the traditional media industry.

"You're smart, interesting people. Like, why not?"

Kara encourages the idea that intelligent and interesting individuals have a place in podcasting, regardless of their professional background in media.

Consolidation in the Podcast Industry

  • Kara Swisher predicts that the podcast industry will eventually consolidate as it becomes more profitable and attracts larger companies.
  • She discusses the cyclical nature of media and content platforms, with periods of organization and consolidation followed by dispersion.

"Right, exactly. And so everything moves towards organization, everything moves towards consolidation, and then it moves towards destruction in the same way."

Kara explains the inevitable cycle of consolidation and dispersion in media, which she believes will also apply to the podcast industry.

"It's going to be consolidated. You get that. One of the things, though, I wouldn't take out print all the time."

This quote suggests Kara's belief in the eventual consolidation of the podcast industry, while also acknowledging the enduring value of print media.

Investment and Content Valuation

  • Kara Swisher discusses receiving investment from Terry, who seemed indifferent about the money given.
  • The sale to Vox allowed all twelve investors to make their money back; some took Vox stock instead of cash.
  • Content valuation is uncertain and the future of Vox Media is still to be determined.

"Thanks for the $5 million we got in the bank. And he's like, oh, good."

This quote reflects the casual attitude of the investor, Terry, towards the investment, indicating he was not overly concerned about the money.

"They all took Vox stock? They did. I think."

Kara is unsure about the exact decisions of the investors but believes most took stock over cash, reflecting a belief in Vox's potential value.

Acquisitions and Media Industry Challenges

  • The discussion moves to whether acquisitions by companies like Vox are considered successful, using a grading system from A to F.
  • The podcast industry is mentioned as a positive aspect of Vox's acquisitions.
  • Media is a challenging industry, and content companies like Buzzfeed and Vox face similar issues.

"I'd say a B plus at least. If not an A."

Kara grades the acquisition positively, indicating a belief in the benefits and success of the acquisition.

"Media is hard. That's their problem."

This quote summarizes the overarching challenge of the media industry, which companies like Vox and Buzzfeed face.

Vox Media Valuation and Potential Buyers

  • Vox Media's valuation increased from several hundred million at the time of Recode's acquisition to being a unicorn at $1.1 billion.
  • Speculation about who might buy media companies like Vox, with potential buyers ranging from Comcast to Verizon.
  • Kara shares her investigative approach to uncovering the Tumblr acquisition by Yahoo.

"It's a unicorn now. They announced it, 1.1 billion."

Kara confirms Vox Media's current valuation, highlighting its growth since the acquisition of Recode.

"I don't know who would buy God, any of these companies."

The quote reflects the uncertainty and difficulty in predicting potential buyers for media companies in the current market.

Kara Swisher's Reporting Strategy and Career Highlights

  • Kara shares anecdotes about her reporting tactics, including her strategy to uncover the Tumblr acquisition.
  • She discusses the importance of direct communication and reaching out to sources.
  • Kara reflects on her career highlights, such as the Gates-Jobs interview, and her impact on the industry.

"I made a list. And I was like, this is what they would buy. This is what they'd be interested in."

Kara describes her methodical approach to investigative reporting, which led to the discovery of Tumblr's buyer.

"The Gates jobs interview was great."

This quote points to one of Kara's most proud moments in her career, illustrating the significance of her work in the tech journalism field.

Balancing Work, Life, and Creative Freedom

  • Kara describes a typical day filled with writing, podcasting, and planning events.
  • She emphasizes the need for media companies to keep creative people interested and rewarded.
  • Kara shares her thoughts on the evolving nature of media contracts and the potential for more free agent-like arrangements.

"I could retire right now. Like Walt did."

Kara reflects on her substantial body of work and the freedom it affords her to continue pushing boundaries in her career.

"How do you keep creative people interested and reward them?"

This quote addresses the challenge media companies face in retaining and motivating their top creative talent.

Political Insights and Future Prospects

  • Kara discusses her thoughts on political figures like London Breed and Stacey Abrams, highlighting sensible and non-partisan approaches.
  • She briefly touches on the idea of running for mayor of San Francisco, but seems to support the current mayor.
  • Kara expresses her desire to interview Mayor Breed on her show.

"I think London Breed is good."

Kara's quote shows support for San Francisco's mayor and her approach to the city's challenges.

"I'm hoping to have her mayor breed on the show."

This quote demonstrates Kara's interest in engaging with political figures and bringing their perspectives to her audience.

Kara Swisher's Impact and Advice to Listeners

  • Kara reflects on her impactful interviews and the legacy of her work in tech journalism.
  • She advises listeners to focus on doing the work despite obstacles and believes in the potential for success through perseverance.
  • Kara encourages direct action and reaching out to people as a means to achieve goals.

"Just do the work, please. Just do the work and then you'll be just fine."

Kara's quote emphasizes the importance of hard work and dedication in overcoming challenges and achieving success.

"People will talk to you. If you get their emails and you write them, they will write you back."

This quote highlights Kara's proactive approach to communication and networking in her career.

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